You have probably heard the phrase “fake it till you make it”. From professional confidence to personal finances, it seems that there’s nothing you can’t fake until you make it, as it were. But does the adage apply to happiness?
The answer: it depends (doesn’t it always?). While faking a smile can sometimes boost your spirits for a little while, long-term, authentic happiness comes from real changes. Also, forcing too much positivity on yourself when you’re feeling down can have the opposite effect and you may end up feeling even worse. Still, you can make do with a little fake happiness in a pinch.
If you want to learn all about fake vs authentic happiness, read on. In this article, I’ll take a look at the efficacy of faking happiness with some relevant tips and examples.
- The difference between looking and being happy
- Faking happiness on social media
- Faking happiness offline
- Wrapping up
The difference between looking and being happy
From early on, we are taught not to judge a book by its cover, because looks can be deceiving. But since our brains love shortcuts, that advice is hard to follow. We simply do not have the brainpower to analyze every interaction with everyone we meet, especially if the interaction is brief.
Instead, we rely on obvious cues. If someone’s smiling, we assume they are happy. If someone’s crying, we assume they are sad. When someone fails to greet us, we assume they are rude. And our assumptions may be correct, but often, they are not.
There is another process at play that makes guessing people’s true feelings and experiences harder. Namely, the social pressure to show our lives in a positive light.
Fake happiness often looks like authentic happiness
It’s understandable that we don’t share every hardship with just anyone. For example, you might not share information on serious health issues or strain in your relationship with just any coworker. You can’t expect others to do that, either.
So it all comes down to trying not to make too many assumptions about people’s state of mind just by how they look. Not all people who look happy are actually happy, and vice versa.
Of course, we can’t avoid all assumptions, because our brains don’t work that way. But a good way to become a little less automatic in our judgments is to practice mindfulness.
Often, we go to great lengths to make our life look better and ourselves look happier than we actually are. This may include simply not telling other people about our struggles or sharing positive, aspirational content about your life on social media.
Although this kind of performative happiness and positivity has always existed on social media, I have noticed it more often in the past weeks, now that many people are working from home.
Beautiful, sun-lit photos of coffee and books, minimalist and well-organized home offices, and examples of productive schedules for working from home seem to have taken over my social media feeds, with more sarcastic posts poking fun at them scattered in between.
Should you fake happiness on Facebook or Instagram?
We all know that no one’s life is as picture-perfect as they make it seem, but I personally find it hard not to compare my cramped and messy home office to the light, bright and airy ones I see on Instagram. This illusion of perfection is affecting me negatively, but what about the person posting it? Maybe posting that picture helps to boost their happiness, even if they’re faking it at first?
Is there a positive correlation between sharing the illusion of happiness on social media and authentic happiness? Well, kind of.
A study from 2011 showed that while painting yourself in a more positive and happy light on Facebook has a positive effect on people’s subjective well-being, honest self-presentation also had an indirect positive effect on subjective well-being, facilitated by perceived social support.
In other words, pretending to be happy on social media can make you happier, but being honest gets you more support from friends, with results in a more lasting and meaningful boost in happiness.
A 2018 study found that the benefits of faking happiness depend on people’s self-esteem. People with high self-esteem gained more happiness from honest self-presentation on Facebook, while strategic self-presentation (including hiding, altering, or faking some aspects of the self) made both the high and the low self-esteem group happier.
There is further evidence that people who tend to self-enhance on social media, by making themselves seem happier, smarter, and more skillful, report higher levels of subjective well-being.
However, we can’t be sure if this effect is caused by an actual increase in happiness levels or if they are enhancing their subjective well-being in the studies as well as on social media.
So what can we take from this? Faking happiness on Facebook seems to have some effect on your real happiness levels. However, the effect seems to be fleeting and not meaningful - is it true happiness if you need to constantly reassure yourself and others?
Faking happiness offline
Can you fake happiness in real-life, and does it make sense to do so? Can you look at a mirror with a smile, and repeat "I'm happy" 30 times and expect to get any happier as a result?
Can you smile yourself happy?
My neutral facial expression looks thoughtful and sad. I know this because people who don’t know me very well tend to ask if everything’s okay because I look “down”. I have always had a resting sad face, and I know this because a well-meaning teacher once suggested that I should smile in the mirror each day to make myself happier.
It’s a popular piece of advice and one that I have given myself as well. But does it really work? Can you really make yourself happier by forcing a smile?
Yes, it does, but only sometimes. A 2014 study reports that frequent smiling only makes you happier if you believe that a smile reflects happiness. If you don’t believe that smiling causes happiness, frequent smiling can backfire and make you less happy! It’s similar to finding your meaning in life - you won’t find it when you’re consciously looking for it.
A 2019 meta-analysis of 138 separate studies found that while our facial expressions can have a small impact on our feelings and mental state, the effect isn’t big enough to facilitate a meaningful and lasting change in our happiness levels.
Faking happiness by making comparisons
According to social comparison theory, downward comparison or comparing ourselves to people worse off than us should make us feel better about ourselves. But as I have outlined in my previous article on the topic, any kind of social comparison can backfire and lower our self-esteem and overall happiness levels.
In general, the verdict is that you can’t really make yourself happy by making comparisons.
Can you convince yourself to be happy?
“It’s all in your mind,” is another piece of advice I tend to give a lot, despite it rarely helping any of my students. If it’s all in our minds, then why can’t we just wish ourselves happy?
While our attitude and mindset are important, there are some thoughts we have very little control over, so we can’t simply flick a switch in our mind, but we can make the conscious decision to work towards change.
For example, positive affirmations are a great tool, but you need to be careful with them. Affirmations should be positive, but not too positive. For example, if you’re not happy, repeating “I am happy” will simply not work, because you do not believe that.
Affirmations only work if you believe them (here's a good guide if you want to know more).
Instead, a more realistic approach is better: “I am working towards happiness”. This one is easier to believe, but again, it will only work if you actually do believe it.
So we can convince ourselves to work towards happiness, but we can’t convince ourselves that we are happy if we’re not.
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There are many ways to make yourself look happier than you are, but you can’t actually fake the feeling of happiness. While positive feedback from looking happy online may raise your subjective well-being for a while, real and authentic happiness comes from actual changes within ourselves.
Do you want to share your own experience with faking happiness with us? Did I miss an important study on this topic? I'd love to hear in the comments below!